Kazakhstan and Corruption: Young Blood, Old Habits

The accused is a star of one of Kazakhstan’s most-vaunted success stories: the Bolashak scholars program.

Sometimes a cor­rup­tion case is about more than just the cor­rup­tion. The down­fall of Kuandyk Bishimbayev is a sto­ry about how Kazakhstan con­tin­ues to strug­gle to uproot graft and how the scourge has been hand­ed on seam­less­ly to a gen­er­a­tion in which the elite had placed great hopes of a more trans­par­ent future.

Bishimbayev was detained by anti-cor­rup­tion agents in January 2017, almost two weeks after being sum­mar­i­ly fired from his job as National Economy Minister. Investigators announced they sus­pect­ed him of tak­ing bribes dur­ing his time at the helm of the state-run Baiterek hold­ing com­pa­ny, an enti­ty tasked with ensur­ing imple­men­ta­tion of the government’s eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment goals.

In April, while await­ing a tri­al that start­ed in November 2017 and is now reach­ing its con­clu­sion, Bishimbayev turned 37 years old.

Bishimbayev is one of the best-known grad­u­ates of one of Kazakhstan’s most-vaunt­ed suc­cess sto­ries: the Bolashak schol­ars pro­gram. Named after the Kazakh word mean­ing “future,” Bolashak was cre­at­ed by President Nursultan Nazarbayev in 1993 with the express goal of mod­ern­iz­ing the coun­try by hav­ing Kazakhstan’s most promis­ing young peo­ple study at top-class uni­ver­si­ties around the world. In 2005, Nazarbayev decreed that it should become manda­to­ry for all deputy min­is­ters to have stud­ied abroad. 

Bolashak could have been tai­lor-made for Bishimbayev, who com­plet­ed his stud­ies in inter­na­tion­al eco­nom­ic rela­tions at the Kazakh State Management Academy (now called Narxoz University) by the time he was 19 years old. He then squeezed in an MBA at George Washington University in the mid­dle of obtain­ing a law degree at Taraz State University. In March 2015, Bishimbayev became chair­man of a Bolashak old boys asso­ci­a­tion — a sure sign of the esteem in which he was held by that cohort

He got a job in the pres­i­den­tial admin­is­tra­tion in 2008 and was named an advis­er to Nazarbayev him­self in 2009. At lat­er junc­tures, he occu­pied posts as a deputy trade min­is­ter and vice chair­man of the Samruk-Kazyna sov­er­eign wealth fund.

The scale of the promise has made the dis­grace all the more eye-catching.

The Bishimbayev affair has drawn so much atten­tion not because of how high-rank­ing he was. After all, after two high-pro­file tri­als of Kazakhstani prime min­is­ters, it is hard to shock the gen­er­al pub­lic,” Sultanbek Sultangaliyev, head of the Rezonans think tank, told Eurasianet. “This is the first time that such a promi­nent and dis­tinc­tive mem­ber of that new gen­er­a­tion of state man­agers […] has been tried on cor­rup­tion charges.”

While the judge at the Astana Specialized Inter-District Criminal Court has yet to pass a ver­dict on Bishimbayev and his 22 fel­low defen­dants, it is almost unknown for tri­als to reach this stage in Kazakhstan with­out a con­vic­tion. Prosecutors are ask­ing for a 12-year jail sen­tence. Bishimbayev has adamant­ly denied the accu­sa­tions against him, although he did in an impas­sioned address to court apol­o­gize to Nazarbayev for “hir­ing peo­ple whom I knew and who let me down.”

Sultangaliyev said that the con­fi­dence afford­ed to the poten­tial of man­age­ment class-shap­ing ini­tia­tives like Bolashak was always misplaced.

These illu­sions are not to do with the pro­fes­sion­al­ism and cre­ativ­i­ty , but with the idea that young blood might be immune to cor­rupt forms of per­son­al enrich­ment,” he said.

Placing this tri­al in a broad­er his­tor­i­cal con­text, polit­i­cal ana­lyst Talgat Ismagambetov argued that Kazakhstan con­tin­ues to be blight­ed by a cul­ture of impunity. 

Even when offi­cials engaged in ille­gal­i­ty are caught in the act, they just move on from those posts — and no atten­tion is drawn to the fact, so as not to ruin the department’s rep­u­ta­tion,” Ismagambetov told Eurasianet. “With this kind of impuni­ty, cor­rup­tion could not be uprooted.”

On paper, how­ev­er, Kazakhstan appears strong­ly com­mit­ted to final­ly tack­ling the issue. In his annu­al address to the peo­ple in January, President Nazarbayev reprised an oft-rehearsed theme, stat­ing that uphold­ing “the rule of law and the fight against cor­rup­tion remain pri­or­i­ty areas of state policy.”

Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for 2017, which was pub­lished this week, not­ed a slight improve­ment in Kazakhstan’s per­for­mance over the past year. The news was greet­ed with sub­dued enthu­si­asm by the Civil Service Affairs and Anticorruption Agency. 

Our coun­try rose nine posi­tions. In 2016, Kazakhstan was in 131st place. […] In 2017, Kazakhstan is in 112nd place, along­side coun­tries like Azerbaijan, Moldova, Liberia, Mali and Nepal,” the agency said in a state­ment on Facebook, adding that the coun­try is out­per­form­ing post-Soviet peers like Ukraine, Russia and Kyrgyzstan. 

Madina Nurgaliyeva, deputy direc­tor at the state-affil­i­at­ed Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies, insist­ed that the gov­ern­ment is indeed in a tire­less bat­tle against corruption.

Lately, there has been a lot of media atten­tion on high-pro­file cor­rup­tion cas­es, and there have been tri­als involv­ing very famous and high-rank­ing fig­ures. And there are also many mid-lev­el cor­rup­tion cas­es ‚” Nurgaliyeva said. “Even though the lev­el of cor­rup­tion in Kazakhstan is still quite high, we are see­ing some pos­i­tive movement.”

A cat­a­log of cas­es has indeed piled up over the years, although the pat­tern in which those scalps have been tak­en sug­gests a scat­ter­shot, rather than sys­tem­at­ic, approach. Among the most notable cas­es was that of Talgat Yermegiyayev, for­mer chair­man of the Expo-2017 fair, who was sen­tenced to 14 years in jail in 2016 for embez­zling around $25 mil­lion. In 2015, ex-Prime Minister Serik Akhmetov got 10 years in prison for mis­ap­pro­pri­at­ing $6.8 mil­lion. That penal­ty was reduced twice after appeal hear­ings — one of which fea­tured a grov­el­ing apol­o­gy to Nazarbayev from Akhmetov — so that in September the sen­tence was com­mut­ed to “lim­it­ed free­dom,” mean­ing Akhmetov spent just 1 1/2 years behind bars. In June 2014, for­mer deputy Defense Minister Bagdat Maikeyev was sen­tenced to six years in prison on charges of accept­ing some $2 mil­lion in bribes. He was released on health grounds the fol­low­ing February.

In an argu­ment that echoes a posi­tion held pri­vate­ly by many civ­il ser­vants, ana­lyst Islam Kurayev argues that the broad­er population’s propen­si­ty for giv­ing bribes helps keep the prac­tice alive.

You could say it cuts both ways in Kazakhstan. On one hand ‘the fish rots from the head down,” Kurayev said. “The oth­er posi­tion could be expressed by say­ing: ‘that’s the tail jus­ti­fy­ing itself.’ In truth, the prob­lem is with the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion itself, which is par­tic­u­lar­ly afflict­ed and obses­sive on this front — they give and oth­ers take.”

Meanwhile, some observers spec­u­late that the Bishimbayev affair may ulti­mate­ly just be yet anoth­er episode in the very exten­sive roll-call of Kazakhstan’s intra-elite squab­bles, which usu­al­ly cul­mi­nate in one of the com­bat­ants end­ing up in a prison cell.

It is true that there is a bat­tle against cor­rup­tion ‚” said Ismagambetov. “But on the oth­er hand, there are clan groups who are using this fac­tor to fight against their oppo­nents. When some offi­cial or oth­er is snatched up and thrown into jail, this is what you call ‘ditch­ing the loser’s body.’”

Kazakhstan and Corruption: Young Blood, Old Habits

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